Polish up your prose with the help of a pro
Thanks to a new ground-breaking scheme, aspiring novelists are being paired with professional writers
March 27, 2008
While we continue to ask authors whether writing can be taught, perhaps a more useful question to consider is how aspiring writers can best cultivate their craft.
New teaching schemes are transforming the learning experience from "one size fits all" to one-to-one mentoring and support. And emerging novelists are discovering that individual attention from an experienced author may develop their work more effectively than a time-consuming traditional course, such as a writing MA.
Mentoring schemes offer more support and consultation than a taught programme has time for, and can range from highly structured programmes to more informal get-togethers. Some schemes are offered by email or over the phone, but the majority place great value on time spent face-to-face.
Now in its third year, the Adventures in Fiction Apprenticeship Scheme is seeking applications for its 2008 programme (you have until 31 March to apply). This Arts Council-funded programme includes one-to-ones and workshops, with an emphasis on individual attention. Many of the writers involved have since been published in anthologies or magazines, and 2006 apprentice Irene Barrall's first novel is out later this year.
In 2001, the Royal Literary Fund commissioned novelist Jill Dawson to research the needs of new writers. The most frequently stated need was the chance to learn from more established writers. So Dawson set up her own mentoring service, re-launched last year as Gold Dust. New novelists are paired up with an author with at least four published books to their credit. The programme lasts a year and costs £2,000, but if you can stand the sustained focus and prefer a personal approach, it could be a better investment than an MA.
Not that more traditional programmes have had their day, of course: for Caroline Smailes, an MA in creative writing gave her the time and motivation to finish her first book, In Search of Adam. With her next, Black Boxes, out in July, she's now in a position to advise others, and has been partnered with new writer Rosalind Wyllie as part of a mentoring project by Tonto Books and The Arts Council. The project involves Caroline reading and offering advice on Rosalind's manuscript over the next year and both authors say they are excited at the prospect.
An article Jill Dawson wrote for Mslexia reminds us that probably the most well-respected writing course started as a mentoring arrangement: "The very first year of the MA course at UEA wasn't a course at all... Malcolm Bradbury only had one student: Ian McEwan."
There can't be many aspiring writers who wouldn't like McEwan's input on their work-in-progress, but he might not be my first choice.
As a huge fan of her journalism, I've always wanted to talk to Nora Ephron about her career and pick up any tips she could offer (for both our sakes, I'd stay schtum about Bewitched). But if I ever branch out into fiction, I want American short story stylist Lorrie Moore by my side. I'm terrible at imagery, but Moore trots out metaphors and similes like... someone who's really good at that stuff.
But maybe if you had the chance to sit with your favourite writer, you'd want to talk about something other than writing tips: money management with JK Rowling, religion with C.S. Lewis, or the best way to pickle a liver with Charles Bukowski, perhaps. Hippie hedonists could hang out with Ken Kesey, old romantics with Barbara Cartland and prospective MPs with Machiavelli. The possibilities are endless.
Which writer - living or dead - would be your ideal mentor, and why?
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